OrissaPublished by MAC on 2007-08-11
Knocked Out by Bauxite
11th August 2007
The lives of tribal communities in Orissa’s Niyamgiri have been disrupted by the greed for bauxite. Stuart Freedman reports
Kado Dei’s eyes fill with tears as she talks of the day her husband didn’t come home. “My husband had gone to distribute leaflets for a meeting against the company. He had gone to five or six villages. When I put the water to boil for cooking, I got a message that there was a dead body on the road, so we rushed there. It was Sukru, my husband.” Her husband had been run over by a car allegedly driven by employees of Vedanta Alumina Limited (VAL), a company that her husband, and much of the area, was campaigning against.
“Before, the company people had asked us to vacate the village asking how much money would we take for our land but we said that we would not leave our Mother Earth. The company has come here to kill us — they are not worried about killing people. The driver bribed the police and the matter was dropped.”
“For food, I have to go from one door to another… I don’t have food all the time and I am dependant on the village, they call me and give…”
According to Bratindi Jena, an activist who works with the tribe Kado and her husband belong to, there have been several incidents of violence against those vocal in opposition to “the company”.
Near Kado’s village is a stream, part of the Vamsadhara river, one of the two that flow from Niyamgiri mountain in the Karlapat Hills of Orissa — one of the least developed states in the country. The area is home to an extraordinary range of wild, and largely endangered, species and protected under Section 18 of the Wildlife Protection Act. It is also home to the Dongria Kond, Kutia Kond, Majhi Kond and Jharania Kond who live in about 200 villages and they worship the mountain as a living god.
VAL senior counsel Mukul Rohtagi told the Supreme Court earlier this year that the bauxite reserves in Orissa and Niyamgiri Hills (on the border of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts) are the largest in the world, which is why val spent several years building an enormous aluminium refinery in Lanjigarh village in the Niyamgiri plains and now plan to mine bauxite from the mountain.
Vedanta Resources, a UK-registered ftse-100 company headed by nri Anil Agarwal, has so far spent more than £400m on the project. The company claims to have invested heavily in the community through training schemes and schools and even a resettlement village where those who lost their land to the development were re-housed. The Vedanta ‘village’ is a compound of mostly empty concrete two-room houses surrounded by barbed wire where displaced tribals were resettled after their land was acquired for the initial plant work. On a recent visit, it is clear the occupants have left, unable to cope with their loss of land and traditional way of life.
Now, Lanjigarh is a dusty town and at the guarded gates of the plant, tin shack liquor stores sell local hooch to villagers. Inside the perimeter, one can see a huddle of tree tops — all that’s left of the forest.
In Kankasarpa village, Dabu Majhi, a formidable woman in her fifties, sits with other women in her mud and straw home. “When the factory starts, the company will take over our forest; smoke will fill our skies,” she says. She and her son recently travelled to Damonjordi, an area in Orissa close to the nalco factory. “There was ash falling on the fields and the people did not sleep well because of the noise. I saw skin diseases on the children and the adults…”
“We know that there is a lot of property (sic) inside the mountain that the company has come to loot. They will kill the lions and the tigers and destroy the forest to get into the mountain. We do not know exactly what is in the mountain but we know that it is precious… This is our place, we have been here for ten generations… if we leave, where will we go? Who will take us? We will become beggars”.
Indeed, as Arirudha Dutta, a senior investment analyst with the clsa, a leading equity brokerage has said the problem has always been between to create industrial growth against decades of government indifference to it’s people.
“Tribal people do not have the education to get jobs at these plants. They sell their land at government determined prices and then end up working as contract labourers,” Dutta says.
Vedanta has claimed that it has sent at least 40 youths to college. Locals add that not one has found employment subsequently. “They are making fools of people,” says Sidharth Nayak, a local lawyer and chair of the Sachetan Nagarik Manch.
The United Nations Development Programme says 1 lakh families have been displaced in Orissa since Independence and about 20 lakh have been affected in varying degrees by industrial projects. In this post-displacement landscape, women and girls often end up working as daily wagers, domestic helps or prostitutes. The women also have to cope with alcoholism and domestic violence.
These concerns are voiced by more than 40 women speakers who have gathered under the banner of the Adim Adhikar Surakshya Manch near Bijapur.
Frail women address the overwhelmingly female audience, some of whom have walked 25 km just to be here. The women’s shrill voices cause the microphone to squeal and pitch but the message is clear. Says Maladi Dei, 38, from Amguda village: “Since the company came, liquor has been flowing much more.”
Gater Dei, 40, from Palaberi village follows her: “We don’t have enough to eat because the men are getting drunk…”
Currently, there are three complaints against Vedanta being heard by the Central Empowered Committee (cec) of the Supreme Court, set up by the court in 2002 with the approval of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (moef) and the Solicitor General. Its task is to monitor and ensure compliance of Supreme Court orders on forest conservation issues.
Both the Wildlife Society of Orissa and Academy and Mountain Environics filed petitions in 2004. Activist Prafulla Samantara filed the third petition. All three petitions alleged environmental violations on a range of counts. Key amongst these is the illegal diversion of forest land and construction of roads in a wildlife sanctuary for bauxite mining and questions over the initial “permission” for setting up the refinery violating the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.
The initial MoEF permission indicated that there was no diversion of forest land for refining. Evidence is different on the ground. Fifty-eight hectares of forest land has been diverted for non-forest use for which the company has allegedly not sought clearance. Furthermore, in 2002 the district collector stated that 118 hectares of forest land was required for the project and steps had begun for its acquisition.Under the Forest Conservation Act, it is mandatory to have Central government clearance before commencing any project involving forest land.
It seems the Orissa government had given environmental clearance despite these violations. That Vedanta has constructed the refinery already may be in violation of the law. The mining, smelting and aluminium plant parts of the project are linked as one feeds the others yet Vedanta has sought separate permissions for all three, thereby allegedly underselling the environmental impact of its plans.
Indeed, the CEC report in September 2005 on forests stated: “The casual approach, the lackadaisical manner and the haste with which the entire issue of forests and environmental clearance for the alumina refinery project has been dealt with smacks of undue favour/leniency and does not inspire confidence with regard to the willingness and resolve of both the state government and the moef to deal with such matters keeping in view the ultimate goal of national and public interest.”
Twenty-six-year-old Jagadi Maji Dei, who was recently elected sarpanch, says she was elected because she studied till Class viii in a region where people are most often illiterate. She says she will move a gram sabha resolution soon opposing any further activity by Vedanta.
According to Babu Mathew, director of anti-poverty agency ActionAid, the Vedanta case is part of a wider trend of evictions and displacement.
“While the national economy is booming, the poor are being displaced from their homes, land and livelihoods. The encouraging thing is that these very people are coming together to resist such attacks. In Chhattisgarh, for example, tribal women have prevented their forest from being felled and now have the backing of the courts,” he says.
“Communities resisting Vedanta have enlisted the support of local and international lawyers and activists. Let’s hope we can soon celebrate similar success here,” says Mathew